New IUCN report reveals extensive saline intrusion in Azraq Basin

16 March 2011 | News story

A new IUCN study has highlighted severe saline contamination of one of Jordan’s most important groundwater aquifers, the Azraq basin.

This saline contamination represents a serious threat, caused by intensive pumping over the past 20 years. The overpumping has led to a drop in regional water tables and an increase in salinity in both groundwater and the surrounding soils.

Saline intrusion into groundwater can be caused by different things, some of them natural and some caused by human activities. Once groundwater becomes saline, it is almost impossible to reverse the situation, making it a significant threat to freshwater resources. Mitigation strategies that are designed to slow or halt the rate of saltwater intrusion can be expensive, but necessary to protect the water resources from further damage.

A recent study on salt water intrusion in the upper aquifer of the Azraq basin, undertaken by the IUCN Regional Office for West Asia and partners of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in Jordan, highlighted that local communities must be involved in the local action plan to tackle the growing salinity problem. Groundwater in the Azraq Basin is pumped at a rate of 260%, far exceeding the safe recharge capacity of the aquifer. Abstraction of water from Azraq by both the government and farmers increased dramatically in the early 1980s. This recent study reveals that a total of 904 wells abstract about 60 million m3/yr of water which is over 3 times the safe annual yield of the aquifer. About 20 million m3/yr of water is abstracted by the government in order to supply the capital city of Amman and the surrounding Zarqa governorate. The rest of the water extracted is used to grow crops by local farmers.

However, it is the local communities who suffer most from reduced water quality and availability, and ecosystem functions. The study recommends the involvement of local communities in the Azraq area to develop an immediate action plan to extract the highly saline water from the aquifer for salt production. As groundwater has been extracted over the years to supply urban centres, it has caused a shift in the hydraulic balance between fresh and saline water normally contained under the Azraq wetland areas. The excessive pumping has mobilized this saline water which is now contaminating cleaner water, and causing problems for both agriculture and for the supply of clean freshwater to Amman. Local communities have reported the wells becoming drier as groundwater levels drop. The study has been officially adopted by the Ministry of Water and Irrigation for consideration in the Highland Water Forum, and for the Ministry’s future plans.

The falling groundwater has had a severe impact on ecosystems in the area, especially the RAMSAR wetland site. Many rare birds and plants have disappeared. Rising concern among NGOs to protect the environment has helped to raise awareness to the complex problems and pressures local farmers and water authorities face, and highlight the need to alleviate the abstraction of groundwater to allow natural rehabilitation of the aquifer. The IUCN Water and Nature Initiative (WANI), through the IUCN West Asia office, are working in the Azraq basin to support the equitable management of water resources by building capacity of the different stakeholders and assist in improving water resources management for agricultural production and environmental sustainability.

Only through enhanced participatory processes of sustainable water management can we create action to restore the wetland and provide for a sustainable future’, said Fidaa Haddad, Project Manager for IUCN ROWA, ‘we must create a continuous dialogue for all the different water users to understand the needs, concerns and pressures of everyone and the ecosystems they rely on – without this understanding it becomes too easy to drain the wetland and lower the groundwater before we realize the damage we are doing due to local demand, and demand from hundreds of kilometers away’.

For more information please contact Ms. Fidaa Haddad: fida.haddad@iucn.org